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Floored by Fluorochemicals: What Are The Health Risks?

Dec. 11, 2017, 1:46 PMUpdated: Dec. 11, 2017, 5:39 PM

How extensive and risky is fluorochemical contamination? How are these chemicals affecting people’s health?

Those are among the questions the Environmental Protection Agency, the Defense Department, and other environmental research agencies are jointly addressing to assist public health officials, wastewater utilities, and military installations.

“We need more research,” Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, told Bloomberg Environment. “We don’t want to minimize what exposure could do, but we don’t want people to get overly concerned.”

Fluorochemicals are fire-resistant, heat-resistant, and stain-resistant and are used in hundreds of consumer products as well as in firefighting.

Military and other firefighting training facilities are the largest sources of exposures, Jennifer Field, an Oregon State University professor and authority on fluorochemicals recently told Bloomberg Environment. Landfills are the second major source, followed distantly by wastewater treatment facilities, she said.

Detection methods, cleanup treatment options, and health risks from ongoing and future exposure are all being examined at the EPA, according to a Dec. 7 internal memo obtained by Bloomberg Environment.

The Department of Defense, National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Toxicology Program, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are among the other agencies also developing information to help states, municipalities, military sites, and other places.

Flows Downhill

A Bloomberg Environment analysis of EPA water contaminant data found that 65 water utilities across 24 states and territories had at least one sample that came back above the agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

Collectively, these drinking water utilities serve more than 6 million people across the country, and PFOS and PFOA are merely two among thousands of fluorochemicals.

If the EPA’s advisory level is protective, then most U.S. citizens are not in danger, according to Rainer Lohmann, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Superfund Research Center.

States, municipalities, and federal agencies already have provided bottled water, closed sources discharging the chemicals, or begun to treat water to reduce the pool of people exposed, he said.

Health advisory levels aren’t enforceable and might not reflect the best science. The central question is whether they are safe enough, Lohmann told Bloomberg Environment. Some U.S. states and EU countries have set lower recommended or enforceable limits for fluorochemicals, he said.

Big Family

Researchers have found at least 3,000 varieties of fluorochemicals in the environment, Linda Birnbaum, director of the NIEHS, recently told Bloomberg Environment. The group increasingly is called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a name that reflects their diverse carbon-chain lengths, structures, and molecular combinations.

These chemicals are, or have been, used to make stain-resistant upholstery, waterproof apparel and footwear, and grease-resistant food packaging such as pizza boxes, popcorn bags, and hamburger wrappers.

The largest single source of known contamination is around training and firefighting sites where aqueous film-forming foam is used in particularly dangerous aircraft, shipboard, and oilfield fires.

The chemicals don’t easily degrade in the environment, and the number of scientific studies showing that PFOS and PFOA cause health problems in people and animals is growing, Birnbaum said.

Some people exposed to high concentrations of the chemicals have experienced high cholesterol, colon and thyroid problems, testicular and kidney cancers, and elevated blood pressure during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We don’t know a lot about the health effects of others,” Birnbaum said, referring to the thousands of fluorochemicals beyond PFOS and PFOA.

Multiagency Meeting

A multiagency committee within the White House’s National Science and Technology Council will meet in February coordinate research efforts, Michael DeVito, acting chief of the National Toxicology Program, said Dec. 7 during a meeting of the program’s Board of Scientific Counselors.

Scientists from these agencies and researchers with grants have described other efforts at meetings Bloomberg Environment has covered during the past six weeks.

For example, NIEHS and its National Toxicology Program will use computer models to predict the chemicals’ biological and health effects, as well as conduct animal experiments.

Diverse Research

The EPA’s Office of Research and Development plans to analyze 75 fluorochemicals through screening studies, according to the agency’s Dec. 7 memo.

Marc Allyn Mills—an environmental engineer at the EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory—told participants at a recent environmental conference that the agency is working with independent labs to validate testing used to measure fluorochemicals in groundwater, surface water, waste water, soil, sediment, and sludge.

The EPA’s toxics office is organizing data and revisiting chemical categories last updated more than five years ago, Tala Henry, a division director in the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, said at a Dec. 6 meeting on the agency’s new chemicals program.

The agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management is working on PFAS cleanups at 32 federal Superfund sites in cooperation with states, Thomas Sinks, who directs EPA’s Office of the Science Adviser, told an agency board.

The Department of Defense funds research to develop firefighting foams that can put out aircraft and ship fires but don’t contain fluorine, Christopher Sherwood, a Defense Department spokesman, told Bloomberg Environment.

The carbon-fluorine bonds in fluorochemicals are among the strongest in nature, “an impenetrable fortress,” said Field, the Oregon State University professor, during the same conference at which Mills spoke.

Guidance, Litigation

Meanwhile, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has developed materials for health care providers and the general public.

The health care guidance has helped New Hampshire work with doctors who treat people near contaminated sites, Benjamin Chan, an epidemiologist with New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services, told Bloomberg Environment.

More research, however, could spur enforcement actions and lawsuits. 3M, the Chemours Co., and DuPont are among the companies that already face lawsuits because of contamination from fluorochemicals they have made in the past but voluntarily stopped producing.

Many other companies, including Angus Fire, Dafo Fomtec AB, Solvay Specialty Polymers Italy S.p.A., and Asahi Glass Co. Ltd., have used either the older phased out chemicals or their newer replacements.

A large body of scientific information exists showing newer fluorochemicals are less persistent, less likely to accumulate in the food chain, and less toxic, Jessica Bowman, senior director of the FluoroCouncil at the American Chemistry Council, told Bloomberg Environment.

—With assistance from Sylvia Carignan, Steven Gibb, and David Schultz.

This is the second part of a Bloomberg Environment series looking at the impact of fluorinated chemical contamination on communities and businesses.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com